Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

In the spring of 1861, Richard Wagner endured the very worst humiliation of his mature career—a humiliation of Beckmesserian proportions. The high-profile revival of his early opera Tannhäuser, thoroughly revised for its Paris premiere, caused such a scandalous uproar that Wagner pulled up stakes and canceled the production after only three performances. That failure reinforced his burning sense of resentment against the opera capital of the world, where he had already experienced crushing rejection nearly two decades before.

Later that summer, prospects fell through for the premiere of his most recent work, Tristan und Isolde (completed in 1859), which was to have taken place in Vienna. Dozens of rehearsals confirmed the score’s reputation as “unperformable.” Meanwhile, Wagner’s perennial troubles with his estranged first wife, the actress Minna Planer, along with alarming new accumulations to his mountain of debt, all intensified the feeling that he had reached an impasse more daunting than ever before in his career. The inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival still lay 15 years in the future.

“I feel that I need a break from the very real seriousness of my everyday preoccupations in order to create something quickly that will bring me into more immediate contact with the practicalities of our contemporary theaters,” wrote Wagner in October 1861 to his publisher, Franz Schott, by way of explaining his sudden proposal to write “an easier, less demanding, and therefore more quickly completed work.” The composer even ventured that he would be able to deliver the score “finished and ready for performance by next winter.”

In fact it would take Wagner another six years to complete Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This was not the first time he miscalculated the dimensions required for a new creation, including the length of its genesis and the demands the finished work would make on both performers and audiences—let alone on opera company budgets. In 1857, around two-thirds of the way through Siegfried, Wagner had set aside work on the Ring in order to immerse himself in Tristan, which he similarly predicted at first would be an easy-to-produce moneymaker. The Meistersinger project prolonged Wagner’s postponement of the Ring (though he did interrupt the new opera to continue orchestrating the music he’d already drafted for Siegfried).

What might explain Wagner’s surprising determination to devote energy to a genre he initially described outright as “grand comic opera”? He had attempted it only once before, in his early twenties, with Das Liebesverbot, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Comedy seems thoroughly incompatible with the demands of “heavy” Wagnerian music drama. Even if he eventually dropped that label from Meistersinger, the historical specificity of its setting—“Nuremberg, about the middle of the 16th century”—represents an exception among Wagner’s mature music dramas. In contrast to Meistersinger, these works reject “historical” opera in favor of the indeterminate, timeless setting of myth and legend.

For one thing, Wagner had already stored up the idea for Meistersinger in the middle of his tenure as music director in Dresden. This was well before he formulated the criteria for his revolutionary vision of the music drama, which evolved in tandem with his work on the Ring tetralogy. While vacationing at the spa town of Marienbad in July 1845, and fresh from completing Tannhäuser, Wagner sketched out a substantial prose draft for what he later termed “an especially cheerful subject” that, like Tannhäuser, also revolved around a climactic song contest. He noted that this “vivid picture of Hans Sachs and the mastersingers of Nuremberg” appealed because it might serve as a light-hearted counterbalance to the tragedy of Tannhäuser.

Perhaps his recent fixation on the earlier opera’s abortive Paris production re-triggered the idea of Meistersinger as a temporary relief from the stress of tragedy (and from Wagner’s own litany of sufferings in this period). Moreover, the composer’s travels through Nuremberg in August, just after a major choral festival had been held there, may have reawakened his interest in the significance of the city as an idealized symbol for a high point in German culture; only since 1860 had a partial amnesty allowed Wagner, a political refugee in Switzerland throughout the 1850s, to set foot again on German soil.

Over the intervening years, Wagner’s appraisal of the potential lurking in this material—and above all in the character of the shoemaker-poet Hans Sachs—had altered significantly. It is possible that he still regarded the project as an uncomplicated comic diversion when he first took it off the shelf again. But more likely Wagner was merely trying to sell it as such to Schott to justify a much-needed cash advance when, in his pitch letter of 1861, he predicted that “the style of the piece, in the poem and the music alike, will be thoroughly light and popular.”

During the next several months, Wagner crafted a libretto that on one level is populist and straightforward, though deliberately old-fashioned (evoking the simplicity of the short rhymed verse Goethe employed in Part I of Faust, which itself emulates the idiom cultivated by Sachs in his poems). Yet the libretto’s layering of esoteric allusions at times approaches the polyphonic complexity of the music—a hallmark of this score already foreshadowed by the prelude, which Wagner composed, contrary to his usual practice, before he had even completed the libretto. The Meistersinger text weaves together a fabric characteristically drawn from a wide array of sources. Among these are the work of the contemporary literary historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus, Jacob Grimm’s history of master singing, a biography and play about the real-life Nuremberger Hans Sachs (1494–1576), Sachs’ own poetry and plays, a Goethe poem about Sachs, and the fiction of such early German Romantics as E.T.A. Hoffmann that make use of the atmospheric setting of old Nuremberg.

From this mass of disparate material Wagner constructed a remarkably coherent drama whose specific setting serves as readily as the mythic contexts of his other music dramas as a universal metaphor for the human situation. The opera’s interplay of ideas and dramatic motifs pushes Meistersinger far beyond the realm of “light comedy,” even as it integrates such standard-issue comic patterns as the rivalry of an unsuitable older suitor (Beckmesser) for the desirable Eva and the triumph of the young couple against the odds. Yet the more comforting and familiar comedic elements provide a kind of Trojan horse for deeper reflections. These indeed are consonant with the essentially tragic philosophical outlook Wagner had evolved in recent years, which had compelled him to write Tristan while also reshaping his thinking about the Ring.

The most immediately obvious embodiment of this outlook is the profounder characterization of Hans Sachs, in comparison with Wagner’s 1845 sketch. Sachs is developed with more complexity than anyone else in the opera’s large cast—to the point that he has come to be considered the most sympathetic, most humane of Wagner’s signature bass-baritone characters. Deeper reflections likewise shape the entire dramaturgy of the third act—the longest single act in all Wagner— with its resolution in both the private and the public spheres of the principal issues at stake throughout the opera: the relationship between innovation and tradition, inspiration and discipline, the artist and the community. The composer’s identification with the revolutionary young hero Walther, apparent in his earlier vision of Meistersinger, has by now been redirected onto the older, far more self- aware widower Sachs—echoing a similar shift in the respective significance of Siegfried and Wotan in the Ring. Yet no other character in Wagner approaches the warmth and humanity of Sachs or the gentle but palpable anguish of his renunciation of desire for Eva, the necessary step before the opera can continue on to the final scene of the song contest.

Far from offering a “cheerful” comic interlude or even distraction from his problems, Wagner’s new understanding of Meistersinger came to incorporate the very core of his vision of art as the modern replacement for outmoded religion, of art as the agent that can reveal the truth of the world and that can order our personal and social relationships. Meistersinger begins with a representation of the community at worship, joined in song, but culminates with a twofold glorification of art. The first comes in the people’s spontaneous acclamation of the young interloper Walther von Stolzing as a mastersinger and winner of the song contest (and consequently of Eva Pogner’s hand in marriage), while the second—to even more resounding effect, because it concludes the opera—gives the spotlight to Hans Sachs, whose name is proclaimed by the crowd in the final chorus.

The power of this victorious outcome and of Meistersinger’s overall sense of affirmation owes much to a darker undercurrent that is integral to the entire work. Recent interpretations have come to focus on a dimension that sets the opera’s perceived accessibility and “sunny” nature in disturbing relief: the post- Holocaust decoding, initiated by Theodor Adorno and extended by other scholars over the past quarter-century, of Beckmesser and his comeuppance as a metaphor for Wagner’s relentless anti-Semitism. According to this line of argument, it was no coincidence that Wagner chose to reissue his notoriously toxic pamphlet Jewishness in Music in 1869 (and for the first time signed under his own name), the year after Meistersinger had its resoundingly successful premiere in Munich.

Beckmesser’s “artistic failings are precisely those ascribed to the Jews” in the pamphlet, writes the Wagner expert Barry Millington. On the other hand, runs the counterargument, Jews had been expelled from the historical Nuremberg in 1499, and the respected position held by Beckmesser as a leader of the community makes it implausible that Wagner intended to single him out as the dangerously unassimilable “alien” caricatured in his anti-Semitic diatribe. Beckmesser’s humiliation, in this reading, reflects the sadistic treatment inherent in the mechanism of comedy (think Malvolio in Twelfth Night) and is enhanced by Wagner’s scorn for traditionalist critics, while the Marker’s garbled song parodies Italian coloratura—another “foreign” influence to be avoided.

Further complicating the issue is the unfortunate reception history by which Meistersinger found special favor in Hitler’s Third Reich, thus unavoidably tainting the associations conjured by Sachs’ final paean to the purity of “sacred German art.” Instead of a simplistic either/or approach, it would be more realistic to acknowledge a conflation of these various elements in Wagner’s characterization of Beckmesser, including the irrational hatred that may have unconsciously been mixed in during Wagner’s creative process. In his book Nuremberg: The Imaginary Capital, Stephen Brockman argues that Beckmesser should “be seen not literally as a Jew but as a dramatically necessary structural element of the opera.” At the same time, Beckmesser “plays the same role that Jews play in German anti-Semitism, and for this reason the identification of Beckmesser as a Jew is a highly productive misreading, as demonstrated by the controversy it has generated.”

One reason Wagner’s composition of Meistersinger took so long was that he needed to find the right musical language to express a milieu that, while inspired by a specific historical setting, was ultimately a thoroughly reimagined world far removed from the Renaissance Nuremberg that flourished as a center of banking and international trade. Commentators are fond of emphasizing the dramatic contrasts between Tristan’s chromatic night world and the gloriously bright C major that frames Meistersinger and its celebration of St. John’s Eve. Yet the songs, marches, choruses, quasi-Lutheran chorales, and radiant third-act quintet hardly represent “reversions” to a less-complicated musical language. More than any other creation by Wagner, Meistersinger is “about” music itself and the entire range of what music can convey, deep below the surface text of what the characters are singing—including, famously, a hair-raising quotation from Tristan itself in the third act.

This “meta-musical” aspect encompasses a remarkable spectrum, from complex ensembles to the psychological intimacy of the portrait of Sachs in the third act. The effectiveness of Wagner’s process, as the philosopher Michael Tanner observes, is to keep moving our focus “from the outside—consideration of the whole monumental work—to areas within it.” The result is that it becomes a “mistake” to settle for which among its “possible perspectives is the right one. But Wagner has ensured that we shall not be able to rest from the attempt.”


—Thomas May